When he was young, Tomas Allen dreamed of becoming a farmer like his father before him. He loved the flat Manitoba vistas where it seemed the land touched the sky so that they became one, and skating in winter on the slough. He loved driving a tractor on the family’s land near the village of Roblin, more than 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, the scrub cleared of rocks so that the soil could be more easily tilled.
Most of all, he loved the sense of a world opening up, one season after the next, renewing itself, inexorable and exciting.
From those beginnings, from a farm that did not have electricity for much of his childhood and still does not have running water, Mr. Allen continued to plant and nurture a rich life that for the past 20 years was spent more than 7,000 kilometres away in Geneva. Instead of wheat, he worked with scientific knowledge, ensuring that people around the world, from Africa to India and beyond, both had access to it and knew how to do so.
He would describe himself as a mere, small-town librarian, a gentle, lanky, bearded and bespectacled husband and father of two who never thought when he applied for a World Health Organization job posting that he would get it; a man who spoke a host of languages, including French, German, Spanish and Swedish, just because he was interested in learning them.
Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Mr. Allen, whose official WHO title was “librarian” in the Department of Quality Assurance, Norms and Standards, started working with his small team to create, maintain and then constantly update an exhaustive, universal, free and multilingual database about it. For two years, they toiled, sometimes in Mr. Allen’s living room or back garden, with the result becoming an essential tool for researchers in the fight against a disease that has afflicted 617 million people so far and caused more than 6.5 million deaths.
Their work would become the award-winning WHO COVID-19 Research Database, with hundreds of thousands of references, updated five days a week and easily available to anyone the world over. And its template – Mr. Allen’s template – is now being used to create a similar database for the battle against monkeypox.
In December, 2021, Choice Reviews, a publishing unit of the American Library Association, gave the database, with its multilingual compendium of scientific discoveries that more than 7,000 researchers in over 200 countries access each day, the prestigious Choice Outstanding Academic Title award.
“It was amazing,” said José Luis Garnica Carreño, who first met Mr. Allen in 2014. “He searched the databases and sent me the citations. There were 20, then 40, 50, 100 – and soon there was no way we could contain them all in a Word document. And so, our database was born.”
Mr. Allen died on Sept. 9 in a Geneva hospice room that overlooked a farmer’s field, with a vineyard in the distance, after a months-long battle with glioblastoma. He was 61. In the days before his death, he wrote emails to each member of his staff, personal, funny individual recollections and appreciations, while at a garden party at his home before going into the hospital for the last time, his one request was a glass of good Sancerre wine, which he drank from a sippy cup.
Among his final visitors was WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who arrived with a huge bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, Dr. Tedros wrote a letter that was distributed throughout the organization, noting Mr. Allen’s “deep sense of responsibility for justice, equity and humanity.”
“Tomas’s work reached beyond the Organization to assist research institutions located in low and middle-income countries,” Dr. Tedros continued. “With his contagious broad smile and openness to others, he was considered the ‘networker of networkers’ … [and] thanks to his kindness, breadth of knowledge and exceptional listening skills, his office was never empty, with colleagues queueing up to get help on any scientific topic or tap into his evidence research skills.”
Said Mr. Garnica: “The wonderful thing about Tomas was his generosity. He always had time for you, and somehow managed to treat you as an individual and an integral part of the group.”
Speaking at Mr. Allen’s celebration of life, colleague Ian Roberts recalled that in 2005, the library was trying to come up with a “unique metric” to report and measure everything it did, activities that would be grouped into a category known by an acronym, as is done in many organizations.
“Tomas noted that what is of consequence is to have listened, understood and delivered what the person absolutely needed at that point in time,” Mr. Roberts said. “He called it the HTI, or the Human Touch Indicator.”
Tommy John Allen was born on July 30, 1961, the third of John and Gladys Allen’s four children. He grew up on the family farm outside of Roblin playing in fields of wheat and barley; as a teenager, he drove a tractor, loaded bales of hay, and raised and butchered chickens.
His father worked off the farm much of the time, driving a school bus and a delivery truck. This meant the kids had to pitch in, before they left for school and after doing their homework in the afternoon, leaving little time for a social life.
But that did not distract young Tommy John, as he was called until he changed his name in his early 20s because he felt “Tomas” suited him so much better. An uncle had given him a set of encyclopedias, which he worked his way through, whetting his appetite for a world beyond Roblin’s borders. He formed pen-pal friendships with people in faraway places; he became so close to one pen pal in Germany, with whom he first laboriously corresponded with the help of a German-English dictionary, they considered themselves brothers all their lives.
In high school, Mr. Allen took on odd jobs to earn money for a plane ticket and a Eurail pass, for he wanted to visit his far-flung friends in person. He also signed up with Canada World Youth and headed to Quebec and Bolivia, adding Spanish and French to his German. Then, he moved to Winnipeg to do a degree in modern languages at the University of Manitoba.
There, while working at a crêperie in the kitchen, he met a waitress named Reva Gutnick, an undergraduate at the University of Winnipeg. Eventually, they married and began a life that had them moving between Sweden, where she did graduate work in comparative social policy, and Ottawa, where she taught at Carleton University and worked with First Nations communities, and he commuted to Montreal to do a Master’s in Library Science at McGill.
In 2001, he applied for the library job at the WHO, a drawn-out process that had him finally joining the organization the following year; the family, including daughter Signy and son Stefan, settled in Gex, a village on the France-Switzerland border.
“Everything he did was kind of human,” Ms. Gutnick said. “He learned on the farm that you did not separate work from life – that it is a never-ending circle. It was a lesson he carried throughout his life, no matter if it was recycling and composting, or getting to know, not just colleagues, but their families.”
His brother-in-law, David Gutnick, called Mr. Allen a humble, brilliant man whose mind worked like the iCloud. “He was the connector of connectors, connecting the thousands of people and studies and journals as they came through each morning.
“He wasn’t a soft person, but he was a kind person,” Mr. Gutnick continued. “This was a person whom you knew would do the right thing – a person you could trust.”
Mr. Allen leaves his mother, Gladys Allen; his brothers, Roy and Randy Allen; his wife, Reva Gutnick; and his children, Signy and Stefan Gutnick Allen.